Kids are naturally hungry for knowledge. They’re also hungry for anything edible. With the new school year in full swing, most area students have some help against food insecurity thanks to federal and regional assistance for local students’ nutrition.
Nationwide, the National School Lunch Program dates back to 1946 and was created to assist public and private schools in feeding students with either free or reduced meals. According to the most recent information from the Department of Agriculture, the NSLP helped feed 30.4 million school children across the country in 2016.
Locally, the student body at Ardmore City Schools experiences the highest rate of eligibility for free or reduced lunches in Carter County. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, over 48% of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunches in 2019.
That doesn’t mean 48% of the student body receives free or reduced lunches, however.
Ardmore City Schools food service director Robye Cook says all students within her district can receive free meals under the Community Eligibility Provision from the USDA. According to the USDA website, the provision allows school districts that experience high rates of poverty to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students.
If more t han 40% of students in an Oklahoma school district qualify for free or reduced lunch, that district is eligible for the CEP, according to the USDA. As a result, no students in Ardmore schools carry an outstanding balance in the cafeteria.
Cook says the provision is not a grant, contrary to popular belief, but a reimbursement program. Instead of collecting applications from students’ households to determine individual eligibility, school systems are instead reimbursed for meals served based on household participation in other means-tested programs.
Student households using programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are what determine a school district’s eligibility for the provision, according to the USDA.
Ardmore schools have been participating in the program for about six years, Cook said. The program has to be renewed every four years, and Ardmore City Schools will have to renew the program ahead of the 2022-2023 school year.
Information from the Oklahoma State Department of Education shows 154 public school districts across the state are eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision in 2019, but only 75 of those school systems actually participate. Anita Price with Mannsville Public Schools, which is eligible for but not using the CEP, said other USDA provisions allow all Mannsville students to receive free school lunches.
One system not eligible for provisions is Plainview Public Schools, which has the lowest rate of eligibility for free or reduced lunches in Carter County. Less than 19% of the Plainview student body qualifies for free or reduced meals.
Not being a CEP school doesn’t necessarily mean that students will go hungry if a cafeteria bill goes unpaid. Plainview Public Schools child nutrition director Pam Parker says over 500 students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, even though not that many actually utilize the program.
Parker says her lunchrooms do have to deal with unpaid accounts, but declined to say how much lunchroom debt is actually outstanding for her system. She emphatically said, however, that meals will not be withheld from students because of any balance owed. “We would never do that, it’s not the kids’ fault,” she said.
Parents and guardians of Plainview students use an online service called E-funds for Schools to manage lunchroom payments. Parker said the school does try to actively collect any outstanding balance from parents or guardians, but withholding meals from students is not an option. “We bill out, we make phone calls, and we attempt [to collect],” Parker said.
Back at Ardmore schools, breakfast and lunch aren’t the only meals students receive through school. Lincoln Elementary School counselor John Credle says a weekend backpack program gives about 60 students some help with food when school isn’t in session. “We do it on the weekend because that’s when the food runs out,” Credle said.
The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma gives about 240 bags of food to Lincoln Elementary each month. Credle said parents, teachers and even students can ask for the help, and bags of food — things like crackers, peanut butter, fruit, and shelf-stable milk — are discreetly given to students before school is dismissed for the weekend.
While watching the second grade children at Lincoln Elementary decide whether to eat tacos or salads on Tuesday afternoon, assistant principal Amanda Cramer said the nutrition received through the school by her students not only helps the kids, but also her staff in knowing students have access to meals at school and at home.
“It really gives us peace of mind,” she said.